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Useful Notes / Martin Van Buren

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"Van Buren served one term, but he wasn't bad."
— "The Presidents", by Jonathan Coulton.

Martin/Maarten Van Buren (December 5, 1782 – July 24, 1862) was the eighth president of the United States (serving from 1837 to 1841), and the second from the Democratic Party, after Andrew Jackson and before Whig president William Henry Harrison. He was the first president born after America declared its independence (which Britain recognized when he was an infant), and unlike his British-descended predecessors, he was from the Dutch-speaking people who originally colonized the Hudson River Valley on both sides of his family, nicknamed the Knickerbockers (the New York Knicks basketball team derives its name from these settlers). His primary language, naturally, was Dutch, making him the only president whose first language wasn't English. Van Buren, having had no ancestry from the British Isles, also has the distinction of being the only president not descended from King John of England,note  although like all his predecessors and successors, he was descended from William the Conqueror. He was also famous for possessing Hot-Blooded Sideburns.note 

He started as a lawyer and New York City and state politician. Following John Quincy Adams' victory in the 1824 election, Van Buren and his allies got together and created the Democratic Party to support Andrew Jackson.note  Van Buren effectively ran the new party from behind the scenes and made it the new leading political party in the nation. Before becoming president, he served as a senator, the governor of New York, Secretary of State, ambassador to the United Kingdom, and finally Jackson's vice president. Along with Thomas Jefferson, he is the only American who has served as Secretary of State, vice president, and president.

His nickname while running for president was "Old Kinderhook" (he was born, and died, in Kinderhook, New York), and his election campaign was known as "the Democratic O.K. Club". While the term "O.K." had been known for a few years, it seems to have been popularized by the election campaign. Van Buren won a relatively comfortable electoral victory, mostly because opposition to the Democratic Party was still in flux, resulting in the nascent Whig Party running four different candidates against him; in retrospect, however, the resultnote  served to paper over cracks which had been building up in the latter years of Jackson's tenure, and would ultimately sink Van Buren's presidency after just one term. In office, Van Buren could scarcely have been more different from his hard-assed predecessor. His public image was of an effete intellectual, and opponents criticized him for serving "unmanly" food like strawberries and celery in The White House.

While a shrewd, brilliant political operator and a very decent man, he had the misfortune to oversee a period of economic hardship. Unable to stop the stinging downturn (caused at least partially by Jackson's disbandment of the Bank of the United States), his political enemies gave him the Embarrassing Nickname "Martin Van Ruin". This was just one of many domestic issues whereon he ended up on the losing end. Disputes between America and British Canada nearly led to war, with many criticizing his supposedly weak stance on the issue. He also denied the newly-created Republic of Texas' first request for American annexation on the understandable but unpopular grounds that it would strain relations between the North and South. The Amistad trial occurred during his presidency; he supported giving the kidnapped slaves back to Spain. Also, contrary to how most people remember it, the forced and bloody relocation of the Cherokee to reservations west of the Mississippi River (an event known as the "Trail of Tears") happened under Van Buren's presidency, not Jackson's, though Jackson was the one who put the whole thing in motion.

Widely unpopular, Van Buren lost reelection in 1840. When he left office, he said "As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it." On a side note, in 1839, he became the first sitting president to grant an exclusive interview to a reporter (James Gordon Bennett, Sr., of the New York Herald).

He tried to regain the Democratic nomination for the following election in 1844, though ultimately dropped out to help James K. Polk secure the nomination over Van Buren's Arch-Enemy, Lewis Cass. Cass was nominated when Polk declined to seek re-election in 1848, so Van Buren decided to form his own party, the antislavery Free Soil Party, to split the vote and prevent Cass from getting elected. In this goal, he succeeded, splitting the vote in his native New York (which, at the time, was usually the decisive state in presidential elections) and throwing the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Not only did Van Buren get the satisfaction of putting in a relatively good performance for a third-party candidate with a poorly-received presidential tenure already on his résumé, but his performance helped demonstrate the strength of the anti-slavery movement.

He personally opposed slavery, but as president he was willing to let it continue since the Constitution justified it. He had personally owned a slave who escaped in 1814 and whom he didn't pursue too actively. While initially skeptical of Abraham Lincoln, Van Buren would praise his handling of the war effort not long before he died.

Martin Van Buren was the last sitting vice president to be elected president for 152 years — the next would be George H. W. Bush. Coincidentally, he also followed a popular two-term president and lost reelection largely due to a weak economy. And not only did he outlive his four immediate successorsnote , he also saw more successors ascend to the presidency than any other president to date, dying after Lincoln had been sworn in as the 16th president (39th President Jimmy Carter has since come the closest, living to see Joe Biden elected as the 46th President).

Van Buren in fiction:

  • In an episode of The Monkees entitled "Dance, Monkee, Dance", Martin Van Buren is the answer to a trivia question entitling callers to a free dance lesson. Later in the episode, Van Buren himself shows up for the lesson.
  • In Gore Vidal's novel Burr, Van Buren is secretly the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr.
  • In the Seinfeld episode "The Van Buren Boys," Kramer and George are threatened by a street gang called the Van Buren Boys with the secret sign of the number 8 because Van Buren was the eighth president. They apparently picked that name because Van Buren was the man they most admired. The gang is apparently "every bit as mean as he was".
  • In the 2000 PBS documentary series The American President, Van Buren's voice was provided by Mario Cuomo. In the 1997 film Amistad, he was played, more conventionally, by Nigel Hawthorne.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington", Krusty is assigned petty janitorial jobs in his first term in the House. One of them is to clean off "Capitol Hill graffiti", reading "Martin Van Buren is a wiener", followed by:
    Krusty: Grover Cleveland sucks what?!
    Walter Mondale: Leave that. Lest we forget.
  • In an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Little Pete gets a piece of cereal that resembles Martin Van Buren stuck in his nostril.
  • In The Alamo, Martin Van Buren appears uncredited with another character portraying Andrew Jackson during the scene at Washington, D.C. Van Buren is talking to Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) while Jackson stands beside him.
  • On the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Soul Taker, we see towards the start of the episode a fuzzy TV screen with a picture of him and Crow T. Robot says it's Martin Van Buren.
  • He appeared as a character in the podcast RPPR in the episode "Dodgeball to Save the World" with electricity, liquid and portal powers.
  • "Project Van Buren" was the code name of an early version of Fallout 3, when it was still in production by Black Isle (which gave all its games Working Titles of US presidents).
  • As noted, according to John Hodgman Van Buren is a Time Lord.
  • In the second book of Eric Flint's Trail of Glory Alternate History series, he's referred to as "The Little Magician" for his political acumen, which was one of his Real Life nicknames.
  • Duck Dodgers had the titular character was forced to compete in "roller derby TO THE DEATH" against the "Lesser Known American Presidents," among which were William "Tippiecanoe" Harrison, Grover "Uncle Jumbo" Cleveland, John "Tyler Too" Tyler, and, of course, Martin "Red Fox of Kinderhook" Van Buren.
  • A bust of him is occasionally seen on Homestar Runner.
  • The Weekenders makes a reference to him when Tino has a bad dream, fuelled by his mother's cooking. "Down with the cotton gin! Down with the cotton gin!"
  • In an episode of Veep protagonist Selina yells “Fat Wolverine!” at his portrait.
  • He's one of the Presidents of the independent Republic of New England in the Alternate History story Decades of Darkness.
  • In an August 2014 episode of The Daily Show, when there was controversy about political dynasties between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush being considered as the 2016 presidential nominees for the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively, Michael Che met with Martin Van Buren's great-great-great-granddaughter Lily Van Buren.
  • An issue of The Tick: Big Blue Destiny had the Tick and Arthur travel to Van Buria, an island nation completely devoted to the idea that Van Buren was the greatest president ever. The heroes get caught up in a civil war when a rebel faction who favor William Henry Harrison attack.